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The critics are sinking my “Battleship”!

May 27, 2012

I saw “Battleship” for the second time today. My son and his fiance had not seen it, and they wanted to see it instead of “Men In Black 3”, so we went to see it again.

The Cinemark theater in Independence, Ohio, had a great screen and decent sound – the sound wasn’t as deafening as a lot of theaters I’ve been in over the last few years, but it was loud enough to give some solid impact.

I’ve read a lot on the intertubes about what a poor film this is, what a stupid premise, poor writing, poor acting, poor casting – pretty much everything but the color of the US Navy ships has been criticized.

OK, I’ll agree that it has some plot issues. You can’t think too much about the astronomy and physics involved. Only six years after sending a signal into space from a Landsat – and that series of satellites were intended to study the Earth, not “deep space” – the nasty aliens appear. (Speed-of-light issues notwithstanding.) Nobody knows if they are really interested in wiping us out or not. We know they need to take over our communications equipment on Oahu to send a message back home. (Their own communications craft somehow had collided with a satellite on its way toward earth, destroying it and scattering pieces of it all over the planet.)

A case could be made that the aliens are just trying to take this set of satellite dishes over to phone home, but otherwise don’t necessarily want to conquer or exterminate us. They really didn’t bring enough manpower to do so. Was the signal supposed to say “Y’all come”? Are they the scout team?

If you can get past that stuff, the rest of the movie is a lot of fun. It’s not the only sci-fi movie with bad science. In fact, I’d wager far more science fiction films have been made with almost no regard to the science than those with even a passing nod to physics, chemistry or biology.

The real positives in this film keep it going when thing otherwise get weak. Taylor Kitsch, a total unknown to me before this, actually does a credible job as the screwup-with-tons-of-potential who comes through in the crisis. He is not terribly likable at the beginning, but you have to admire his dedication in the face of overwhelming odds. I happen to believe we need folks like him, the ones who are willing to go all the way out there, instead of playing it safe all the time.

The addition of so many real-live military personnel is a great touch. They helped us suspend our disbelief, and do so subtly. The tributes to the veterans – both active and passive tributes – was touching. There are always those critics who find such treatment of our men and women in uniform somehow old-fashioned and treacly, but I for one really felt director Peter Berg was honest and respectful in his portrayal of the military. I’m sure there were things that were technically and procedurally incorrect in the goings-on aboard ship. None of that detracted from my enjoyment of the film.

To me, the “third act” was what made the movie work for me. I can’t talk about it without serious spoilers, so don’t go further if you don’t want to know what happens yet. I advise you to see the movie yourself first. YOU HAVE BEEN WARNED.

Some years ago my wife and I were fortunate to visit Hawaii and tour the USS Missouri. We had already toured its sister ship in Norfolk, the USS Wisconsin. These World War II era battleships are very impressive even just tied up to the dock. We were told while in Norfolk that the Wisconsin was technically on “active reserve” status  – in fact, that is why we couldn’t go inside. The interiors were kept air-conditioned and humidity-controlled, and should the need arise, the ship could be recalled to active duty, as it was for the first Gulf War.

Since that time, both ships have been turned over to museums – the Missouri to an association in Hawaii, the Wisconsin to the City of Norfolk. That’s only occurred within the last decade, though, so the state of the ships should be pretty good. The Missouri actually was laid up in drydock a couple of years ago for repairs, so she’s probably more seaworthy than she was a decade ago!

If you didn’t know that, the idea of starting up a WWII battleship and getting it out of Pearl Harbor to fight in a matter of hours seems more than far-fetched. One single explanatory line of dialog would have helped make that clear. Otherwise, it’s a reach that the ship could even move! (Of course, where they found the ammunition and the powder bags is a question as well, but at least one plot hole would have been fixed.

The aliens’ behavior was not incomprehensible…but…the lack of an attempt to communicate with humans pretty much flew in the face of one of the main tropes in alien invasion movies – somehow, in almost every movie, we learn what the aliens’ motives are, for good or ill. These aliens were tough, but they didn’t leave their own behind – just like our own military elite units – and they were very single-minded and focused. Is this behavior all that much different from our SEALS or Rangers? Would they be expected to parley with local leaders, or would that be left to diplomats? Maybe all the diplomats were on the communications ship!

In fact, the red/green IDs for people and weapons in the aliens’ heads-up displays indicated that they believed in only attacking threats. If anybody was sneaky and underhanded, it was us!

So yes, there are holes and defects. Pretty much every movie has them. (Think hard about the physics of Iron Man’s flight characteristics – I dare you.) I think the premise that a popcorn movie was being made based on a game, and a game that lacks a real narrative at that, provided the fodder needed by a lot of critics who think they’re clever folk. For the really  lazy critic, sometimes it’s easy to go for the cheap shot, and if he doesn’t have to actually analyze the movie, it’s even better.

I think that’s what happened here. A lot of critics had their minds made up before the movie even came out. Unfortunately, that affects theatergoers and attendance. The presence of so many online critics makes them, as a group, far more influential than a few magazine or newspaper critics were twenty years ago, instead of the reverse.

I’m only going to mention the fact that movies that portray the US military in a positive light usually have a rocky road to go with many critics. I’m not going into that any more in this piece!

So…go see it. It’s the kind of movie that deserves the big-screen, big-sound-system treatment to be appreciated. Watching it on DVD on your 19-inch in the kitchen in six months is not going to work for this one. Make up your own mind. I think far more folks will enjoy this movie than think they might. Give it a try!

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